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Nuclear Power in Australia

In response to rising energy prices, Australia’s Coalition are proposing to install nuclear reactors in several Australian regions. These reactors would likely replace retiring coal stations, and would utlilise existing infrastructure like poles and wires for easy power distribution. The regions on their radar currently are Gippsland, Hunter, Maranoa, Flynn and O’Connor, with potential additions based on partial closures in other places.

However, the criteria for picking these locations are still unclear. Australia is currently the only G20 nation that does not use nuclear energy. Australia’s ban on nuclear energy adds another layer of complexity, requiring parliamentary support for any changes. Safety and technical aspects, like geological stability and water availability, are also important for setting up nuclear reactors.

Critics question the Coalition’s stance, especially as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) suggests that small modular reactors (SMRs) could be more expensive than wind and solar alternatives. The timeline for SMRs to be operational, not before 2038, raises doubts about their role in achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Senator Tim Ayres dismissed the proposal as “make-believe” policy, distracting from the real issues of reliable, affordable and low-emission energy solutions. The ongoing debate highlights the challenges and complexities surrounding any potential shift towards nuclear energy in Australia.

How Nuclear Power Works

Nuclear power involves using the energy released during nuclear reactions to generate electricity. The process primarily centres around the controlled use of uranium isotopes, specifically uranium-235. Here’s an overview of how nuclear power works:

Fission reaction

The core of a nuclear reactor contains fuel rods made of uranium-235, which is a relatively rare element. When a neutron collides with the nucleus of a uranium-235 atom, it becomes unstable and splits into two smaller atoms, releasing a significant amount of energy. This process is known as nuclear fission.

Chain reaction

The fission of one uranium-235 nucleus releases more neutrons, which can then collide with other uranium-235 nuclei, causing them to undergo fission as well. This creates a chain reaction, producing a continuous release of energy.

Control rods

To maintain a controlled reaction and prevent overheating, control rods made of materials that absorb neutrons are inserted into the reactor core. By adjusting the position of these control rods, operators can regulate the rate of the chain reaction.

Heat generation

The energy released during nuclear fission is in the form of heat. This heat is used to produce steam from water, which then drives turbines connected to generators.

Electricity generation

As the turbines spin, they generate electricity by turning a generator. This electricity is then distributed to homes and businesses through the power grid.

Different Types of Nuclear Reactors

There are several types of nuclear reactors, each with its own purposes and advantages. Following are the main ones:

Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR)

PWRs are the most common type of nuclear reactor. They use water both as a coolant and a neutron moderator. The water is pressurised to prevent it from boiling, and it transfers heat to a secondary loop to produce steam for electricity generation. Many nuclear power plants around the world use PWR technology.

Boiling Water Reactors (BWR)

Similar to PWRs, BWRs use water as both a coolant and neutron moderator. However, in BWRs, the water is allowed to boil and produce steam directly to drive turbines for electricity generation. These reactors are widely used in nuclear power plants globally.

Heavy Water Reactors (HWR)

Instead of regular water, heavy water (deuterium oxide) is used as both a coolant and a moderator. Heavy water reactors can use natural uranium as fuel, and they are known for being able to operate without enriched uranium. Canada’s CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium) reactors are heavy water reactors.

Graphite-Moderated Reactors

These reactors use graphite as a moderator to slow down neutrons, enabling the fission process. One famous example is the RBMK (Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosty Kanalny), known for its use in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Originally designed and built by the Soviet Union, RBMK reactors gained notoriety due to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Fast Neutron Reactors

These reactors use fast neutrons without a moderator. They can utilise a variety of coolants, such as liquid sodium. Fast neutron reactors are designed to efficiently use plutonium and can help in reducing nuclear waste. Prototype fast breeder reactors fall into this category.

Molten Salt Reactors (MSR)

Instead of solid fuel, MSR uses a liquid mixture of salts as both the fuel and the coolant. This design offers potential benefits in terms of safety and efficiency.  MSRs are being explored for their potential to operate at high temperatures and for their safety features.

Nuclear power reactors releasing thick clouds of steam.
There are several options when it comes to choosing the best nuclear reactor.

History of Nuclear Power in Australia

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Australia enthusiastically entered the nuclear arena, driven by the promise of using atomic energy for both peaceful and military purposes. The establishment of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) in 1952 marked the country’s formal foray into nuclear endeavours.

In the 1960s, Australia actively explored uranium, seeing the economic potential in its extensive uranium reserves. The nation’s uranium deposits, particularly in South Australia, gained attention for their strategic importance in the global nuclear landscape. During this time, uranium mining operations began, establishing Australia’s position in the global nuclear fuel cycle.

As the 1970s unfolded, so did public awareness and concern about nuclear power. The anti-nuclear movement gained momentum, advocating for bans on nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific and opposing uranium mining in Australia. Dr. Helen Caldicott became well-known for speaking up about the health dangers linked to ionising radiation. Various opinions fuelled a nationwide debate.

The 1980s brought about significant policy shifts, with Queensland and Tasmania implementing bans on nuclear reactors. The Uranium Prohibition Act of 1986 restricted uranium mining in NSW. Despite these measures, the talk about nuclear power continued.

There was a nuanced evolution in attitudes toward nuclear power in the 1990s. Western Australia, with a significant share of the nation’s uranium reserves, initially imposed a statewide ban on uranium mining. However, when the Liberal Party assumed power in the state, the ban was lifted, opening the door for exploration and mining activities. During this time, the Australian Uranium Association was founded to advocate for the interests of uranium mining companies.

The early 2000s brought renewed calls for a national debate on adopting nuclear power as part of Australia’s energy mix. Despite increased interest, opposition to nuclear power remained steadfast, with concerns about safety, waste disposal and weapons proliferation becoming focal points of concern.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear emergency in 2011, voices opposing nuclear power grew louder. Dr. Ian Lowe, among others, highlighted the perceived risks and impracticality of nuclear power for Australia. During this time, many people agreed renewable energy was a quicker, less expensive and safer alternative.

In the mid-2010s, there was a renewed push in favour of nuclear power. Many individuals, organisations and political figures voiced their support for it. South Australia became a main focus in discussions about the possibility of a nuclear waste storage facility and the economic benefits of embracing nuclear power.

In 2015, the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was established in South Australia, further intensifying the debate. Advocates emphasised the economic potential and argued for legislative changes to accommodate nuclear power generation. Meanwhile, opposition persisted, with concerns about environmental impact, safety and the unresolved issue of nuclear waste.

It’s now 2024, and Peter Dutton’s announcement will doubtless fan the flames of the debate surrounding nuclear energy for Australia.

Does New Zealand Have Nuclear Power?

New Zealand does not currently have nuclear power. The nuclear energy option was explored in the 1970s but according to ecotricity, NZ currently rejects it for three main reasons:

Firstly, nuclear energy is deemed too large-scale for the country, with the construction of a single plant capable of powering only one seventh of NZ. Given the significant contribution of hydroelectric power (80% of total energy), nuclear energy is considered excessive. Secondly, the substantial upfront cost of building a nuclear facility, largely reliant on imported materials and expertise, is a significant deterrent. Some argue that spreading this investment across smaller clean energy projects might be more practical.

Lastly, strong public opposition, rooted in the nuclear-free movement of the 1960s, has shaped New Zealand’s stance. While not explicitly banning nuclear energy, the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act of 1987, reflects the country’s aversion to all things nuclear. As a result, New Zealand is likely to pursue cleaner energy solutions amid increasing energy demands.

Where is Australia’s Only Nuclear Reactor?

Australia’s only nuclear reactor is located at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) facility in Lucas Heights, a suburb of Sydney, NSW. The reactor is officially known as the OPAL (Open Pool Australian Lightwater) reactor. OPAL is a modern, 20-megawatt research reactor that plays an important role in various scientific and medical applications.

Five workers in yellow suits crowd around the only nuclear reactor in Australia - 'OPAL' - which is based in Lucas Heights.
The OPAL nuclear reactor in Lucas Heights, Sydney. Image Courtesy: SMH

Advantages for Nuclear Power in Australia

Nuclear power presents several potential advantages for Australia. Here are some key arguments in favour of nuclear power:

Zero greenhouse gas emissions

Nuclear power is known for releasing no greenhouse gas emissions during electricity generation. As Australia is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050 and is making an effort to combat global boiling, nuclear energy will be a cleaner alternative compared to traditional fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that using nuclear power has cut down carbon dioxide emissions by over 60 gigatonnes in the last 50 years, which is almost two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions.

Reliable and stable energy supply

Nuclear power plants offer a steady and reliable energy supply as they can run continuously at full capacity. This differs from variable renewable sources like solar and wind, which need backup power during gaps in their output, such as when the sun sets or the wind calms down. The reliability of nuclear power can contribute to meeting the increasing energy demand and ensuring grid stability, especially during peak periods.

High energy density

Nuclear power has a high energy density, meaning it can generate a significant amount of electricity from a relatively small amount of fuel. This efficiency can contribute to a more sustainable and efficient use of resources.

Base-load power generation

Able to operate continuously at a high capacity, nuclear power plants are suitable for base-load power generation. This contrasts with some renewable sources that are intermittent, helping maintain a consistent power supply.

Economic opportunities

The development and operation of nuclear power plants will lead to job creation and investment in the nuclear energy sector. This contributes to the growth of a skilled workforce and stimulate the economy.

Reduced dependence on fossil fuels

Nuclear power can reduce a country’s dependence on fossil fuels. This is particularly relevant for Australia, which currently relies heavily on coal and natural gas for electricity generation.

Disadvantages of Nuclear Power in Australia

Following are some of the  main drawbacks and risks which are often cited when arguing againt using nuclear energy:

Nuclear accidents and safety concerns

One of the most significant drawbacks is the potential for nuclear accidents, as seen in incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants is paramount, and any mishap can have severe environmental and health consequences.

Radioactive waste management

Nuclear power generates radioactive waste that remains hazardous for thousands of years. Developing effective and secure methods for the long-term storage and disposal of this waste is a major challenge. The issue of finding suitable locations for storage facilities often faces public resistance and regulatory hurdles.

High initial costs

The construction of nuclear power plants involves substantial upfront costs. Building and commissioning a nuclear facility requires a significant investment of both time and money.  

In a recent analysis, the government revealed that a minimum of 71 small modular reactors, each producing 300MW, would be necessary to completely replace the 21.3GW output of Australia’s retiring coal fleet. The government summary cited a potential cost of $387 billion, as per the 2022-23 GenCost report modelling under the existing policies scenario. This modelling indicates that every individual taxpayer would face a significant cost of $25,000 for such a transition. 

This substantial cost makes nuclear power less economically competitive compared to other energy sources, particularly renewable options.

Long lead times

On a global scale, the average construction time for a nuclear reactor is 6 to 8 years. Some countries like China, Japan and South Korea have built a reactor in just 3-5 years (e.g. Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant), while others have taken decades.

Delays in obtaining permits and taking the long route to adhere to environmental regulations can hinder the timely implementation of nuclear energy.

Limited fuel supply

Nuclear power relies on uranium as fuel, and there are concerns about the finite nature of uranium reserves. While nuclear technology such as breeder reactors aim to maximise fuel use, addressing long-term fuel supply sustainability remains a challenge.

Nuclear proliferation risks

The spread of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes can pose risks related to nuclear weapons proliferation. Managing and monitoring nuclear materials to prevent their misuse for military purposes such as warfare is a complex international concern.

Decommissioning challenges

Closing down nuclear power plants when they’re no longer operational involves careful decommissioning processes. Managing the dismantling of facilities while being environmentally-conscious can be resource-intensive.

A nuclear power plant with a barb-wire fence in the foreground, restricting access to the premises.
Nuclear power does unfortunately come with drawbacks.

Is Nuclear Energy Renewable?

Nuclear energy is not considered renewable. It is derived from the fission of uranium or other radioactive materials, which are finite resources. 

Although there is only so much uranium left, there is still enough to last well into the 22nd century. According to the World Nuclear Association, Australia had identified 1,684,100 tonnes of uranium resources in 2021, and globally there was 6,078,500 tonnes available. More data on uranium availability can be found here.